Quadrophenia is a rock opera with three distinct lives – first, as a double LP that drew a psychological profile of The Who through a character named Jimmy, each of the band’s four members a facet of his wracked personality.
A 1979 film placed the young mod’s life in context. With a soundtrack album including Motown and James Brown tracks, it served to reflect Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle and Keith Moon’s passage from the R&B High Numbers to the rock n’ rolling Who, along with the social milieu of their country at the dawn of Beatlemania.
Lacking the seismic impact of 1968's Tommy, the band rarely performed Quadrophenia from start to finish. But to mark the record’s 40th anniversary, lead singer Roger Daltrey reengineered Pete Townshend’s narrow slice of 1964 life into a multimedia spectacle spanning from WWII England to present-day 21st Century. This was the show Townshend and Daltrey brought for The Who's first-ever New Hampshire appearance at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester.
As a history of The Who, the visuals, spread across three circular screens behind the stage, worked splendidly. To understand the harsh existence of bombed-out Londoners, fallout shelters in the Tube, rationed food and the like is to appreciate the liberation music later provided. Footage of a youthful Keith Moon and John Entwistle were especially satisfying.
The storytelling overreach when delving into cultural epoch was exasperating, however. Shoehorning Hurricane Katrina and Occupy Wall Street into the mix didn’t achieve much effect, though touching on John Lennon’s death somehow did fit.
No complaints as far as the music goes - the band was in fine form. Daltrey sang with gusto and swung his microphone while Townshend windmilled his guitar – convincingly enough for two guys pushing 70. With added guitar work from Pete’s brother Simon Townshend, two keyboard players, a four-piece horn section and drummer Zach Starkey capably in Moon’s shoes; the supporting cast was also stellar.
Townshend in particular shined, displaying a gritty voice and gravel in his gut on “I’m One.” An extended encore included crisp versions of the band’s biggest hits – “Baba O’Riley,” “Who Are You,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and the big number from the other rock opera, “Pinball Wizard.”
One unexpected bit of drama occurred when Daltrey abruptly left the stage after nervously pointing at his throat and then singing the final verse of “Dr. Jimmy” through a towel. It turned out that an allergy to marijuana smoke in the crowd pinched his vocal cords, explained Townshend later. Apparently he wasn’t so afflicted in the Sixties; were it the case, Woodstock might have been a very different movie.
Opening band Vintage Trouble set things up ably, its R&B swagger fitting perfectly with Quadrophenia’s era. Two large screens flanking the stage (for nosebleed section fans) played their gyrations in black and white, like an old rerun of Shindig or Top of the Pops. The crowd stayed on its feet for much of the set, and a long line greeted them at the merchandise table after. Even Townshend gave them a gracious shout-out at evening’s end.